ghw photo with otr 052516

George Henry White

I’m grateful to Republican state senators for proposing the Cheatham-White Scholarships at N.C. A&T State and N.C. Central universities.

The awards would cover full tuition, costs and enrichment experiences for selected students, much like the Morehead-Cain and Park scholarships at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, respectively.

Perhaps the universities themselves would rather choose the names for these awards. A&T might prefer McCain Scholarship after the late Franklin McCain, a leader of the Greensboro sit-ins, a trustee and UNC Board of Governors member. Or McNair Scholarship after the late astronaut Ronald McNair. Central might want to honor the late Julius Chambers, an alumnus, civil rights attorney and chancellor.

Who are Cheatham and White? Thanks to the proposed scholarships, they’ll be better remembered.

Henry P. Cheatham and George Henry White were black congressmen from North Carolina, elected in the 1890s. They were Republicans, which probably is why our present Republican state senators picked them. Yet, they have little in common; in the 1890s in North Carolina, the Republican Party was progressive and attracted most black voters. Today, there are no Republican state legislators who are black. The Democratic Party in those days was conservative, white and intensely hostile to blacks.

Cheatham and White were brothers-in-law, but they weren’t friendly. In fact, they were political rivals and very different in their attitudes. They opposed each other three times for the Republican congressional nomination in North Carolina’s 2nd District.

Cheatham was elected first, in 1890, defeating one of the most vile racists in our state’s history, Furnifold Simmons. As chairman of the state Democratic Party in 1898, Simmons helped engineer a bloody coup in Wilmington, and he later held a U.S. Senate seat for 30 years.

Cheatham was an educator and founder of an orphanage for black children. In terms of race relations, he was a moderate, or gradualist, in the manner of George Washington Carver. He believed that blacks would “win their place in the equation of civic virtue” if they were “patient, persevering, philosophical, thrifty, self-respecting and far-seeing.” This would bring about “the triumph of the forces of right.”

He didn’t see the forces of evil coming.

White was not so trusting of human nature. He challenged Cheatham in 1892 and 1894, unsuccessfully both times. After Cheatham’s defeat by a Democrat in 1894, both he and White tried again in 1896. White finally prevailed.

A graduate of Howard University, lawyer, former prosecutor and state legislator, White was positively combative. He introduced a bill to make lynching a capital offense. He opposed hate crimes and defended voting rights. He proposed federal legislation to protect civil rights and the creation of a federal agency to prosecute violations.

In other words, he was decades ahead of his time.

North Carolina wasn’t ready for him.

Just days after his re-election in 1898, a white mob unleashed an armed insurrection in Wilmington, overturning the elected Republican-Fusionist city government, murdering about a dozen black residents, driving out hundreds and seizing and destroying property.

It was a terrorist attack, and it sparked a white supremacy campaign that swept the South, leading to laws disenfranchising black voters and instituting legal segregation.

White was outraged that neither President William McKinley nor Congress did anything in response.

With no chance of winning re-election in 1900, White not only declined to run, he decided he wouldn’t go home. “I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated as a man,” he told the Chicago Daily Tribune.

In January 1901, White delivered stirring “farewell remarks” to Congress, speaking of the gains blacks had made:

“We have done it in the face of lynching, burning at the stake, with the humiliation of ‘Jim Crow’ laws, the disfranchisement of our male citizens, slander and degradation of our women, with the factories closed against us ...

“This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress; but …phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again.”

He was right, but North Carolina would not have another black representative in Congress for 92 years, until Mel Watt and Eva Clayton were elected in districts crafted under the Voting Rights Act. Both were Democrats.

Cheatham and White were champions of equality, but their lives showed that progress can never be taken for granted.

Contact Doug Clark at doug.clark@greensboro.com or (336) 373-7039.